Administration

A Campus on Edge Over Racial Tensions Is Shut Down by a Threat

June 01, 2017

Lisa Pemberton, The Olympian, via AP Images
Students at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash., protested on Wednesday against the college's administration and demanded change after weeks of racial tension. Officials closed the campus on Thursday in response to a threat from a caller claiming to be armed.

Evergreen State College shut down temporarily on Thursday after a semester of racial tensions that inflamed the Olympia, Wash., institution, and in recent days placed it in the national spotlight. College officials asked students to leave the campus or return to their dorms in the mid-morning, The Seattle Times reported, after local officials alerted them that someone had made a threat against the campus.

In an update posted on its website Thursday afternoon, the college said it would remain closed on Friday, with classes canceled but with staff members on duty to provide services for residential students. Law-enforcement officials will also be present on the campus to ensure their safety, it said. A determination will be made later on when it’s safe to fully reopen the campus, where the last day of classes is scheduled to be June 9.

The campus has been roiled this semester by allegations of racism against the college and against a professor who objected to requests that white people leave the campus for a day.

The precautions were taken in response to a call received by the Thurston County Communications Center from a person claiming to be armed and en route to the campus. The college did not say whether the threat was related to the recent protests on its campus.

Thursday’s developments represent a flash point in an already unusual and bitter chain of events that has featured allegations of racism against the college and against a professor who objected to requests that white people leave the campus for a day.

On May 23, protesters surrounded the office of the campus’s president, George Bridges, with a myriad of claims and demands. Among them: that the campus police had harassed black students and the demand that the police chief resign, and that the college’s administration lacked diversity. "It’s life or death for us," one junior told The Olympian, a local newspaper.

Roughly a week earlier, according to the Cooper Point Journal, a student newspaper, two black students were questioned by the police after a student accused them of making threats. The incident appeared to stem at least partially from an online debate over the racial makeup of a class at the college, and an attempt to make it majority-black, the student newspaper reported.

But at the center of the controversy has been the college’s "Day of Absence," traditionally a day in which minorities stay off campus in a show of solidarity (it is typically followed by a "Day of Presence"). This year, organizers decided that the roles should be reversed, and asked white people to leave the campus to mark the "Day of Absence."

In March, a professor of biology named Bret Weinstein sent an email objecting to this suggestion. "There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles," Mr. Weinstein wrote in the March 15 email, which was later published in the Cooper Point Journal, "… and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away."

On May 23, a group of students confronted Mr. Weinstein during a class he was teaching, and some demanded that he be fired, the student newspaper reported. Video of that incident shows students shouting down Mr. Weinstein, at times using profanity. Police officers showed up and broke up the protest. The same day, Mr. Bridges, the president, hosted a forum to discuss the events — but that meeting was taken over by protesting students, the newspaper reported.

More protests ensued, as well as a list of demands from the students, to which Mr. Bridges gave a detailed response last week.

Mr. Weinstein, meanwhile, told media outlets that the police had informed him he wasn’t safe on campus, so he’d held class in a park instead. In the following days, Mr. Weinstein also appeared on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight and wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal declaring, "The Campus Mob Came for Me — and You, Professor, Could Be Next."

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.

Correction (6/2/2017, 5:59 p.m.): Because of incorrect information provided by the agency that supplied the photograph  accompanying this article, the caption inaccurately described the scene pictured. The image was taken on Wednesday, not Thursday. And the students were protesting Evergreen State’s administration and were demanding change; they were not being evacuated after the college was threatened. The caption has been updated to reflect this correction.